Israel's top court hears challenge to coronavirus cyber-monitoring

Civil liberties activists asked Israel's Supreme Court to suspend cellphone monitoring put in place under emergency regulations to try to slow coronavirus spread. "The government cannot bypass legislature and hide behind general state of emergency to commit...violations," Israel civil rights association said.

20th March 2020 | 12:01 PM (IST)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday tightened a national stay-at-home policy, saying police would now enforce restrictions aimed at halting the spread of the coronavirus.

The measures stopped short of a total national lockdown: Netanyahu said Israelis would still be allowed to shop for food and medicine, and some workers would be exempted. Israel has already banned the entry of foreigners into the country.

"Under these orders, you, Israel's citizens, are required to stay at home. It is no longer a request, it is not a recommendation, it is an obligatory directive that will be enforced by enforcement authorities," Netanyahu said in a televised address.

Israel's Health Ministry reported 677 confirmed cases of coronavirus infection on Thursday, a 50 percent jump over the past 24 hours as the testing rate increases. Forty-seven cases have been reported among Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.

On Wednesday, Netanyahu threatened to impose lockdown orders, unless the public stepped up compliance to shelter-in-place guidelines - pointing a finger at Israel's ultra-Orthodox Jewish community and Arab minority.

In Israel's Supreme Court, civil rights activists and Arab lawmakers petitioned for a freeze in cellphone monitoring of potential virus carriers put into place this week under emergency regulations.

Ruling on the challenge to what Netanyahu's critics see as his side-stepping of democratic procedures in the battle against the outbreak, the court stopped short of ordering an immediate halt to the monitoring but moved to ensure legislative oversight of the practice.

It said the monitoring, carried out by the Shin Bet counter-terrorism agency, must stop by mid-day Tuesday unless parliament convenes and sets up a supervision mechanism.

The Health Ministry said it had already alerted some 400 people found to have been near a coronavirus carrier. Netanyahu's Cabinet had set a two-week period for the procedure.

Netanyahu has argued the government invoked emergency regulations to put the monitoring in motion, rather than go through parliament, in order to save time and lives.

Parliament was sworn in on Monday but Netanyahu's right-wing Likud and the centrist Blue and White party led by his main rival Benny Gantz were at loggerheads over the formation of legislative committees, including one that would address the phone-tracking issue.

Israel has held three inconclusive elections in less than a year, and its president has tapped Gantz to try to form a new government. Likud and Blue and White have been holding talks on establishing a unity administration, with no clear sign of progress.

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20th March 2020 | 12:01 PM (IST)